Uncanny Valley Be Damned

Quantic Dream’s “Project Kara” has me all aflutter. The video (below) is more technical showcase than artist’s statement, but it has nevertheless thrown me headlong into the games-are-so-art frame of mind that tends to exclude me from civil conversation. Giddy — that’s what I am.And it’s not that they’re breaking new ground for interactive play, making a statement with player positioning or any of that — they’re just showing us what we’re physically capable of with the tools we already have. With those tools they’ve injected more humanity into seven minutes of real-time game footage than I thought was possible, and its just bursting at the seams with pathos. Here, just watch it:
And here’s the gist of what David Cage and Co. hope to accomplish with their focus (technical and thematic) on emotional expression:It’s an interesting problem that games face as an audience that grew up with them slowly outgrows them, the medium often seemingly trapped in an infinite teen twilight of guns and fast cars, and one that Cage hopes to be able to solve.“Being older, when I ask people around me what games they play they say they don’t play them anymore,” Cage says. “They still watch TV, they still go to the movies – and the fact that they don’t play games anymore isn’t because they don’t have time, it’s because there are no games for them any more.”

I desperately hope that the final product will be as pure as their intentions. Considering the mixed reviews and ambiguous classification (Cage admitted himself that it was more of an interactive movie than a game) of their last project, Heavy Rain, I can’t say I harbor too much hope of Quantic’s next project bridging the formidable gap between simulation (interactive media) and representational narrative, pristine as that representation appears here.

At the very least, I’ll take Cage at his word: if Quantic Dream can make a game that drives my dad — the man who introduced me to Doom, Warcraft 2 and Myst in lazier days — back to video games of his own volition, I’ll be happy and hopeful enough.

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Japan is an Island

I was only just introduced to Mr. Murakami late last year (Wind Up Bird Chronicle was great, and I’m still working on 1Q84 — also great) and a few weeks back I caught the film adaptation of his 2004 publication Norwegian Wood. Needless to say I liked it very much, caught as I am in a bit of a Japan-craze. That might sound trite, even shallow (I know too little about the culture to claim proactive fascination with it), but for months now I’ve craved that singular blend of frankness, humility and whimsy that seems, to my uninitiated mind, native to Japanese fiction.


Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
was exceedingly cerebral and focused on the ethical questions/philosophical mindscrambles inherent to its robots-are-people-too premise, rather than invisible topless boxing — which has its own merits, of course. In the same vein, Metropolis (no, not that Metropolis) explored similar paradoxes, but presented them in a vibrant gift-wrap of candied animation and cartoony characters. Charming, and poignant too.As a kid I was always fascinated by anime. I still am, but I don’t spend as much time at the action end of things, anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Bebop as much as the next guy, and Yu Yu Hakusho is fucking sweet. Even so — call it senioritis-induced ennui, but I’ve been getting much more satisfaction from the more pensive stuff lately.

Just as charming and an addition to the list of anime I should have seen already is Tekkonkinkreet. It’s from the studio that put out the Animatrix, which I was only slightly ashamed to admit that I loved.  Tekkonkinkreet  is by turns beautiful, disturbing, touching and harrowing. Two orphaned brothers struggle to survive in “Treasure Town,” a slum put up for redevelopment by an alliance of merciless yakuza and smoothing-talking… aliens. It’s weird and wonderful, and worth a viewing for its visuals alone.

Last Life In The Universe

Pictured is Last Life in the Universe, which is not exactly Japanese. More exactly, it’s Thai, but the male lead is played by Tadanobu Asano, who is Japanese and also a very big deal. Asano paints a fantastic portrait of desperation and sympathy in Kenji, the film’s suicidal protagonist, and the plot is just edgy enough to allow for the tender moments that come later. Think Eternal Sunshine with little less abstraction and a little more homicide. Highly recommended.

I have also managed to get my “shit” sufficiently together as to apply more of Akira Kurosawa’s film to my eyeballs. Now, this one I know I’m really and truly behind on, so I’ll just say that High and Low is one of the most emotionally potent detective stories I’ve encountered, and leave it at that. So there you go.

Bonus: this post’s title is also nice music
Edit: Just realized that Shinichiro Watanabe directed both Cowboy Bebop and “Kid’s Story,” my favorite Animatrix short. Also, he’s teaming up with Yoko Kanno (again) to put together a new series.

SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and Gaming

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Polish Parliament Protests ACTA January 2012

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, internet heavyweights Wikipedia, Reddit and Google joined a wide-ranging protest of the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), two bills seen by their opponents as serious threats to the open internet.

The call to action was an unprecedented success, inspiring millions of citizens to voice their dissent online: Google reported over seven million signatures just 24 hours after their petition’s release.

But one group in particular—the gaming community—has more to lose than a day on Wikipedia and is fighting hard, now as before the blackouts, to defend the democratic forums upon which it depends, in large part, to survive.

“Our ability to create online games… depends on a free and open internet,” Mark Kern, co-creator of World of Warcraft, founder of Red 5 Studios and one of the many industry voices raised against the bills, stated in an Extra Credits video released on Penny Arcade TV.

Kern and his fellows are troubled by the broad language of bills whose ambiguity could lead to the blacklisting of entire domains, should their owners fail to police all content for copyright material. For sites that rely on user-submitted content—gaming forums or YouTube, for example—such policing would be impossible, and the punishment for failure would be too immense for all but the most deeply entrenched institutions to bear.

This approach would put gamers in a particularly thorny position. The bills could target websites that showcase live streaming of competitive games like League of Legends and Starcraft 2, or the discussion forums that temper development with player feedback—not to mention unaffiliated websites widely used for sharing and creating independent, game-related content, sites like YouTube, Reddit, DeviantArt and others.

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MW3 as eSport? Call of Duty Sales Numbers & Development Strategy

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 Promo COD MW3

Activision juggernaut Call of Duty has made entertainment history once more with the release of Modern Warfare 3, which sold 6.5 million copies in its first day of release, The Guardian reported.

In 24 hours CoD:MW3 made $400 million in the U.S. and UK alone, shaming opening day sales for Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the July release that set the highest-grossing opening day for the film industry at $91 million.

“Other than Call of Duty, there has never been another entertainment franchise that has set opening day records three years in a row,” said Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick, referring to records set by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 and Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010. “Life-to-date sales for the Call of Duty franchise exceed worldwide theatrical box office for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, two of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time,” Kotick said.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 builds upon the highly successfully model of quasi-realistic, larger-than-life, shoot-em-up gameplay that has been bringing in the dollars since CoD:MW’s release in 2007.

But CoD:MW3 doesn’t innovate as much it tweaks, polishes, streamlines. Activision struck gold with this formula and they’re not about to gamble away a huge potential for profit to take their game new places: like anyone who could feasibly stuff their California King with Benjamins, they’re quite comfortable where they are, thank you.

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A Brief History of Minecraft

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

PS: Yes, I realize how painful my gushing praise seems in light of more recent ugliness. But I wrote it so here it is. 

Minecon Notch On Stage

At a convention in Las Vegas on Nov. 18 or 19, a Swedish game developer will announce the “release” of a game that has already sold nearly 4 million copies, earned a “big pile of awards” (developer’s words) and assembled a devout fanbase as dedicated to the game’s growth as its creators—Mojang’s Minecraft.

Minecraft is an indie, open-ended sandbox game that, in the humble words of the minecraft.net homepage, is “about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine.” Judging from the game’s astronomical success—in its cultural impact (particularly among geeks) and considering it has never been commercially advertised—digital building blocks must have some fundamental appeal.

Think Legos on a cosmic scale: players explore a randomly generated world of blocky mountains, forests, seas and caves, gathering resources and constructing tools to shape the world to their liking. Gameplay hinges on the simple mechanics of placing and removing cubes, an elegant concept that overlays the more complex tasks of tool-crafting, monster-slaying and structure-building.

All of this will sound like old news to fans. Minecraft has been attracting attention since its first release as an alpha test on May 19, 2009, but the November “MineCon” convention in Nevada will mark its first “official” release—ports to Xbox 360 and iPhone are also in the works. Since 2009 the game has grown into nothing less than an online phenomenon—forums and wikis offer exhaustive guides, tips and FAQs; discussion groups like the Reddit.com Minecraft forum (reddit.com/r/minecraft) see constant traffic and visits from the Mojang developers themselves; how-to videos, live-action parodies, merchandise and other pop-culture runoff crops up all over the web.

Minecraft might even make it to the silver screen: 2 Player Productions, responsible for the first season of PATV (a serial study of the folks behind webcomic mammoth Penny Arcade), is currently filming a documentary on Minecraft’s unique conception, reception and evolution, with a focus on the lead developer, Markus “Notch” Persson.

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The Casual’s Guide to the Casual Industry

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Rovio Angry Birds Industry Overlord

Assuming you have had any amount of spare time since the late 90s, you have probably logged more than a couple of hours in simple simulations of matching jewels, numbered minefields, virtual crops and cattle or (most likely) green pigs and fowl-flinging slingshots.

The upstart industry of “casual gaming” continues to enthrall the masses, mystify the diehards and rake in loads and loads of cash—love them or hate them, “casual” games like “Farmville” and “Angry Birds” have earned both economic and pop culture relevance. From Microsoft’s “Solitaire” and “Minesweeper” to “Words with Friends” and “Zuma,” the “casual” philosophy is simple: accessible mechanics and quick gratification draw the user into the addictive cycle of trial and reward that makes social obligations seem dramatically less pressing.

What you might not know is just how lucrative the industry is: the games might be banal, but the business is anything but.

Consider Seattle-based game developer PopCap Games, creators of the seminal “Bejeweled,” “Peggle” and “Plants vs. Zombies.” PopCap, a company that deals exclusively with “casual” gaming, garnered so much attention—and revenue—that industry overlord Electronic Arts acquired the company for $750 million in 2006.

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Review: Gears of War 3

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Gears of War 3

Make no mistake, EPIC Games’ conclusion to the hugely popular Gears of War trilogy plays magnificently well, in the same way that Cheetos taste great and Facebook birthday wishes make one feel loved—good, but in a hollow sort of way.

And Gears of War 3 really is good: EPIC games has preserved the golden formula of cover-based combat that (according to USA Today) sold 13 million copies of the first two installments combined and inspired over 1.3 million pre-order sales of Gears 3 before it was released on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

In fact, I might as well call it “high octane,” “action-packed” and a “rip-rollicking rollercoaster,” because Gears seems as obsessed with cliché as it is with gore—more on that later.

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